Spina bifida is a fault in the development of the spine and spinal cord which leaves a gap in the spine.

The spinal cord connects all parts of the body to the brain.

What causes spina bifida?

During the first month of life, an embryo (developing baby) grows a structure called the neural tube that will eventually form the spine and nervous system.

In cases of spina bifida, something goes wrong and the spinal column (the bone that surrounds and protects the nerves) does not fully close. Spina bifida is also known as split spine.

The exact causes are unknown, but several risk factors have been identified, the most significant being a lack of folic acid before and at the very start of pregnancy.

Read more about the causes of spina bifida and preventing spina bifida


There are a number of different types of spina bifida, the most serious being myelomeningocele (affecting one pregnancy in every 1,000 in Britain).

These pages focus on myelomeningocele and this is the type of spina bifida referred to whenever the term spina bifida is used.

In myelomeningocele, the spinal column remains open along the bones making up the spine. The membranes and spinal cord push out to create a sac in the baby’s back. This sometimes leaves the nervous system vulnerable to infections that may be fatal.

In most cases of myelomeningocele, surgery can be carried out to close the defect. However, damage to the nervous system will usually already have taken place, resulting in a range of symptoms, including:

Read more about the symptoms of spina bifida.

Most babies with myelomeningocele will also develop hydrocephalus, which is excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) surrounding the brain.

Hydrocephalus needs to be treated urgently with surgery as the pressure on the brain can cause brain damage.

Read more about hydrocephalus

Treating spina bifida

A number of different treatments can be used to treat symptoms or conditions associated with spina bifida.

These can include:

  • surgery on the spine – at birth to repair the spine, and corrective surgery later in life if further problems develop
  • surgery to treat hydrocephalus – for example, placing a shunt
  • therapies to help improve day to day life and boost independence – such as physiotherapy and occupational therapy
  • assistive technology – such as a manual or electric wheelchair or computer software to help with schoolwork and writing
  • treatments for bowel and urinary problems

Read more about how spina bifida is treated and complications of spina bifida.

It is likely that children with spina bifida will survive well into adulthood. It can be a challenging condition to live with, but many adults with spina bifida are able to lead independent and fulfilling lives.

Children with disability

Dr Sheila Shribman talks about how parents and health professionals can work together to support children with disability.

Media last reviewed: 14/11/2013

Next review due: 14/11/2015

Different types of spina bifida

Spina bifida occulta

Spina bifida occulta is the least serious type of spina bifida. In this type of spina bifida, the opening in the spine is very small, with a gap in one or more vertebrae (disc-shaped bones of the spine). The opening in the spine is covered with skin, so the gap is not visible from the outside.

Spina bifida occulta does not usually cause any symptoms and most people are unaware they have the condition. In such cases, no treatment is required. In other cases, some symptoms may be apparent, such as bladder and bowel problems, or scoliosis (an abnormal curvature of the spine).

Spina bifida meningocele

Spina bifida meningocele is the rarest type of spina bifida. In this type, the protective membranes surrounding the spinal cord (the meninges) are pushed out between openings in the vertebrae. The membranes can usually be removed during surgery and no further treatment is required.

In spina bifida meningocele, the nervous system is undamaged. However, it may lead to other problems, including bladder and bowel problems.

Page last reviewed: 15/11/2012

Next review due: 15/11/2014